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May 28, 2020

Va. Supreme Court upholds Walker Drive rezoning

The Warrenton Town Council in July 2017 rezoned 31.4 acres of industrial land along Walker Drive for a mixed-use development.
I never did think that the Town of Warrenton, the council did anything improper. So I’m not surprised by the decision.
— Mike Forsten, Walker Drive project landowner
Walker Drive Project
• Rezoning:  31.4 acres of industrial land between Walker Drive and Eastern Bypass for mixed-use development on 6-1 Warrenton Town Council vote in July 2017.

• Landowners: Kim and Mike Forsten, Bill and Bob Springer.

• Details: Project calls for entertainment uses, including a possible multiscreen movie theater and bowling alley, restaurants, shops, offices, 40 condominiums and 76 apartments. The rezoning allows the residential units and gives the developer greater flexibility.

• Lawsuit: Challenging procedures used in rezoning, neighboring homeowners — Kathlyn and Lee T. Rowland, Carol Hegwood, Craig A. Updike and Elizabeth S. and Michael E. Ussery — filed suit against town council in 2017. After losing in circuit court, the plaintiffs appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

• Oral arguments: Supreme Court heard the case April 14 by telephone — rather than in person — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Decision: Upholding town council actions issued Thursday, May 28.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The Virginia Supreme Court has upheld the Warrenton Town Council’s 2017 decision to rezone 31 acres along Walker Drive and the Eastern Bypass for a mixed-use development.

Virginia’s highest court Thursday morning issued its ruling on neighbors’ appeal of a circuit court decision that also upheld the council’s actions in the controversial 6-1, vote in July 2017.

Landowners Mike Forsten, Bob and Bill Springer and Walt Hitchcock submitted the application to the town staff a year earlier. Mr. Hitchcock later sold his interest in the project site to the Springers.

“I’m very happy,” Mr. Forsten said the Supreme Court’s ruling. “I never did think that the Town of Warrenton, the council did anything improper. So I’m not surprised by the decision.”

“Happy that it’s over,” Bob Springer said. “It’s been a long road.”

Mr. Forsten said it would be “hard to speculate” whether the project would be underway, if not for the lawsuit.

Early and during the town’s review of the application, “there were a lot of serious conversations, meetings that had taken place” among the landowners and potential developers and partners, he said. “It’s pretty hard for me or anybody else to look into the old crystal ball and be able to say everything would have come to fruition.”

But Mr. Forsten called the discussions all “very positive.” At one point they included Peterson Cos. of Fairfax, one of the metro area’s largest privately-owned real estate developers.

The 31-acre project calls offices, shops, restaurants, 76 apartments, 40 condominiums and, possibly, a multiscreen movie theater and/or a bowling alley.

Mr. Forsten believes economy will recover and come back strong — not immediately but in time.

“The United States is the greatest country in the world,” he said.

He believes the project in some form in time will be viable because the demand for commercial space, residential and “entertainment” — not necessarily a movie theater or a bowling alley — will return.

Mr. Springer said he holds no grudges against the neighbors who sued to halt the project.

“They had a right to do what they did,” he said. “We felt like we were right in doing what we did. We got a good lawyer (John Foote). We felt pretty good that we had done the right thing.”

Warrenton lawyer Henry C. “Hank” Day represented the town and presented the defendants’ case before the Supreme Court.

Ward 2 Councilman-elect William T. “Bill” Semple II played a key role in initiating and preparing the lawsuit to nullify the council’s decision.

The high court’s ruling “surprised” and “disappointed” him, Mr. Semple said.

“On the other hand, that’s why we have these processes,” he added. “The Supreme Court made its decision.”

Focused on his council duties, Mr. Semple has put the dispute behind him. On May 19, he defeated first-term incumbent Alec P. Burnett with almost 62 percent of the vote. Mr. Semple will take office July 1.

“Let them move on with whatever plans they have,” Mr. Semple said of the landowners. “There’s no sense in beating a dead horse. We gave it our best shot.”

Mr. Semple said he bankrolled about half of the approximately $70,000 it cost to sue the town. The neighbors involved in the suit contributed a small fraction of the total, he said. The remaining amount came from various contributors.

After 17 months of litigation, Fauquier Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker in January 2019 ruled that the town acted properly in rezoning the site for the proposed uses.

But six neighbors appealed Judge Parker’s decision on the complicated rezoning case to the Virginia Supreme Court.

> Document at bottom of story

Last month’s hearing before seven-member Supreme Court lasted about 30 minutes, with the neighbors’ and the town’s attorney getting 15 minutes apiece to make their cases.

James J. O’Keefe IV of Roanoke represented the neighbors. Henry C. “Hank” Day of Warrenton represented town. The justices had no questions for them.

In their appeal to the court, the neighbors:

• Argued that the Warrenton Town Council approved proffers proposed by the Walker Drive project applicants that “modified or reduced the requirements of the applicable zoning district” in violation of the town’s land-use laws.

• Contended that the town council violated Warrenton’s zoning ordinance when it approved “waivers and modifications” for the project without first receiving a town planning commission recommendation on them.

• Claimed the Walker Drive project violates the applicable zoning ordinance because its master plan fails to show the development as an “integrated, cohesive entity,” as required.

The Virginia Supreme Court rejected those arguments.

“I was not surprised by the ruling because I thought the law was as (the court) outlined the law in the opinion,” Mr. Day said. “The court certainly took great pains to analyze the legal questions, and I think did a good job. I think they found that the town staff and the town council did their jobs.”

Contact Don Del Rosso at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-270-1845.

Va Supreme Court Walker Dri... by Fauquier Now on Scribd

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martinkus · May 28, 2020 at 10:18 pm
Just thinking about all of those "empty store fronts" in Warrenton! Indeed, we do need more "stuff," don't we?
Larry · May 28, 2020 at 5:33 pm
I particularly love that they are still trotting out the "possibility" of a movie theater and/or bowling alley, knowing full well that not a single vendor has expressed an interest. All the parents wringing their hands about "wE NeED More THingS foR ThE ChilDreN!!!" really misunderstand how little interest that demographic has in either of those options vs whatever TikTok dance or social media app du jour is all the rage.
Tony Bentley · May 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm
I would question the logic of going through with this project at this time.

Are the owners contractually obligated to build?
Sven622 · May 28, 2020 at 11:04 am
What a shock.
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